Tackling the sea devils

With frequent incidents of maritime violence and tension in recent time, the seas have become more and more unsafe even for bona fide seafarers. If it’s not the Somali pirates holding Indian sailors captive for ransom, it’s a merchant ship opening fire on Indian fishermen, mistaking them for terrorists or pirates.

With a fishing community of about two million fishermen, India has over 300,000 fishing boats. In addition, Indian seafarers form a sizeable chunk of merchant ship crews who sail the world’s oceans. These seafarers, whose livelihood takes them into international waters, are exposed not only to the vagaries of nature but also to those brought on by men. This is because no common international law with regard to self-defence applies in international waters. China’s Navy, Coast Guard and “civilian” fishing trawlers are presently ramping up tensions in the South China Sea, with a view to enforcing Chinese claims on these waters and islands. India is interested in free and safe navigation here, since 50 per cent of its sea-borne trade passes through these waters.

On February 15, 2012, two Italian marines, carrying out vessel protection duties on an Italy-registered oil tanker (Enrica Lexie, en route from Singapore to Egypt), fired on an Indian fishing boat (assuming the fishermen to be pirates) in India’s exclusive economic zone barely 15-20 nautical miles off the Kerala coast, killing two Indian fisherman. Fortunately, the Italian ship was tracked by an Indian Coast Guard aircraft and directed to Kochi, where the two marines were taken into custody and are facing trial under the Indian judicial system.

The master of the ship was not taken into custody, as apparently “he was not aware of the firing” and the ship was allowed to sail from the Kochi port. The London-based United Nations body, International Maritime Organisation (IMO), has issued guidelines for making ship-masters accountable for any firing (in self-defence) by privately contracted armed security personnel, but is silent on military personnel protecting merchant ships. This loophole needs to be plugged at the earliest, as more Western nations are putting armed military personnel onboard their merchant ships for protection duties.

More recently, on July 16, 2012, came the news about a US Navy oil tanker ship, USNS Rappahannock, opening fire on a UAE trawler and killing one Indian crew member (a daily wage earner from Tamil Nadu), while injuring three crew members who were UAE citizens. This incident took place in the UAE’s territorial waters, barely 10 nautical miles from Dubai’s Jebel Port.

News channels interviewed one of the surviving crew members, who spoke in Tamil about 200-300 machine-gun shots fired without any warning. Dubai corroborated his statement. In any case, I doubt if these fisherfolk would have understood loudspeaker warnings blared at sea in English, that too with an American accent. Subsequently, the US Navy stated that the fishing vessel was warned to keep clear before lethal force was used; “condolences” were offered, and an inquiry ordered.

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Article written by Arun Kumar Singh, courtesy of Deccan Chronicle.

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